By Sasha Issenberg, Susan Milligan and Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy suffered an apparent seizure today that a doctor said was likely caused by "simple fatigue," inserting a dramatic turn of melancholy amid a triumphant celebration of the liberalism that Kennedy holds most dear.
Kennedy, who was diagnosed last spring with brain cancer after an initial seizure, was led from a post-inaugural congressional luncheon to an ambulance by medics and colleagues including fellow Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry. He was taken to Washington Hospital Center, where the chief of neurosurgery said he was recovering while encircled by family and was expected to be released Wednesday morning after staying overnight for observation.
"I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now a part of me is with him," President Obama said at the luncheon after Kennedy left the room. "And I think that's true for all of us. This is a joyous time, but it's also a sobering time.”
Less than two hours earlier, the Massachusetts Democrat had sat in a black fedora and sky-blue scarf feet away as Obama became the first black man to read the presidential oath taken by Kennedy’s brother John nearly a half-century ago. For months, Kennedy had anticipated the historic occasion as the culmination of decades of his work on civil rights and immigration law.
Kennedy was "just beaming" in the hours before the inaugural ceremony, said Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt. "He looked great. He was in a very happy, jocular mood."
After Obama's swearing-in, as Kennedy's press office released a statement declaring him "full of new hope," he joined other officials streaming off the viewing stand into the Capitol's Statuary Hall for a ritual lunch hosted by congressional leaders in honor of the new president. Kennedy was seated with other Senate veterans, including former vice president Walter Mondale, as he ate from a menu of pheasant and seafood stew prepared in honor of Abraham Lincoln's favorite foods.
Leading the table in conversation, Kennedy was in a "happy mood, regaling us with a few jokes," recalled Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. "And all of a sudden, he slumped his head like he was going into a seizure….His teeth were clenched."
As the luncheon proceeded, Kennedy was removed in a wheelchair to another room to be treated, then wheeled to the ambulance in a stretcher.
Kennedy has been keeping an active schedule since his diagnosis last May, holding conference calls with his staff and working with other senators and cabinet secretaries on healthcare matters. Despite worries about his condition, he insisted on flying to Denver in August for the Democratic National Convention, and delivered a rousing speech even after a bout with kidney stones the morning of his address.
Kennedy returned this month to the Senate determined to pass a sweeping healthcare plan he has sought for must of his 46-year career in the Senate. While the senator has still been receiving treatments for his brain tumor, he has been holding hearings and assigning other senators roles in the development of a plan he hopes to pass under the new Obama administration.
The white-haired lawmaker has shown a certain frailty in his return, using a cane owned by his father to steady his bad back. His hands and voice reveal a slight shakiness. Unlike in July -- when a bloated and tired-looking Kennedy made a dramatic appearance on the Senate floor to cast the deciding vote on a Medicare funding bill -- Kennedy this month allowed fellow senators to get close to him, accepting the hugs and handshakes doctors last summer had worried would be too much for his compromised immune system.
But today's scare raised questions about whether the stubbornly hard-working lawmaker was exerting himself too much. Some people close to the senator were not happy with the idea of him sitting outside in the bitter January cold to see Obama take the oath of office, but Kennedy was determined to do so.
His color was strong, he was smiling, and he appeared spry as he made his way to the front of the Capitol for Obama's speech.
But the overwhelming emotional heft of the day -- combined with the physical strain on an ill man -- may have put too much of a burden on Kennedy. As he left the luncheon, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said that he assumed the "physical and emotional pressure" placed on Kennedy may have played a role in the seizure.
Specialists say that it is not uncommon for patients with brain cancer to suffer seizures intermittently. Even if the patient, as in Kennedy's case, has had surgery to remove the tumor, the surrounding area in the brain remains abnormal. And the senator's tumor was in a brain region particularly prone to seizures. He was briefly hospitalized in late September after another seizure.
Seizures can happen for a number of different reasons -- such as missed medication or dehydration -- and do not necessarily signal that a tumor is getting worse, said Dr. Deepa Subramaniam, director of the Brain Tumor Center at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington.
Dr. Steven Schachter, an epilepsy specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and president of the American Epilepsy Society, said that in some patients, "certain situations may make it more likely that a seizure would occur, and stress – even happy stress, excitement – is one of those." Other contributing factors might include losing sleep and fever, said Schachter, who like Subramaniam is not treating Kennedy.
Even as Kennedy was being carried to an ambulance, close friends were heartened to see that he appeared to have full control of his most basic reflexes. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah took note of an "old Irish smile" breaking from Kennedy's lips, while Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut expressed relief that Kennedy found the energy to "bellow" that "he was resistant to any help."
"When he bellows," Dodd said, "he's usually in pretty good shape."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.